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Understanding Changing Priorities in Healthcare Business

Steve Huffman, CIO, Beacon Health System
Steve Huffman, CIO, Beacon Health System

Steve Huffman, CIO, Beacon Health System

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, and it was the epoch of incredulity”. The not so famous portion of the first paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens paints a fairly accurate portrait of healthcare IT today and probably how most CIOs in healthcare feel. Meaningful use brought us to a point of frenzy over the last two years and is bringing some of us to tears as we look forward. Combine that with the complexity of system acquisition and integration, the demand on acquiring and retaining the right talent, and the onslaught of hyper-promised Big Data solutions, we should never wonder why our positions turn over so frequently.

The business of healthcare is maturing, again. Price pressure, new insurance products, shared savings, clinically integrated networks and population health are all creating new ways to interact with the organizations and people who pay for services. This makes the “interoperability” mantra, at times, laughable. So how does a healthcare CIO succeed in such tumultuous times? Be nimble, realize data is your friend, be prepared for growth and most importantly succeed with relationships.

Being Nimble

In my 20 years in the industry, I have not seen a time of the organization asking as many questions and making new small requests as today. As our organizations are finding their way through the change, CIOs need to understand that rapid change is the new reality. Being nimble to address quick changes is paramount. Helping your team understanding that changing priorities does not mean poor company leadership, it means that the healthcare industry is a complex and rapidly changing environment. Have easy ways to get requests to your team, and make updates more frequent. Demand scopes for every project and force change control processes, but do not let great be the enemy of good.

Data—your Enemy and your Friend

Data is gold, and sometimes fool’s gold. Without adequate and appropriate data, new initiatives will struggle. It is almost impossible to “do” population health, defined differently across the industry, without good data. Good data is as clean and secure as you can make it, and as large as it needs to be. Big Data does not mean good data. Do you need to do Big Data? Only if you can accurately define how it will measurably impact your business needs should you decide to dive deep into big data. While you are waiting for Big Data needs to mature, work on consolidating data, cleaning your data sources, and work towards standardized nomenclature across your system.

We are just at the beginning of the health data onslaught. With the amount of wearables now in the market and devices waiting to be deployed, the amount of data we will be asked to receive and sift through will make our current data challenges seem like child’s play. If you are not thinking about testing wearable data management you are late to the game. If you have not contemplated how to address a patient asking your physician to upload their own sleep data instead of forking out cash for a sleep study, then you are not thinking far enough ahead.

Be prepared for Growth (or not)

Mergers and acquisitions, new devices entering the market, and patient demands for data will only increase in the coming years. Be prepared for growth now. Have the operating principles of your department nailed down. Ask yourself if you have the right infrastructure if you were to add 25 percent growth in your business, and if not, consider outsourcing some of your technology needs. Can you flex down in cost and scale if you need to reduce 25 percent? Do you have a robust succession plan, if not create one. You need to retain and grow the talent you have to prepare for growth or redefinition of the business in the new models of care.

Relationships are the Key

It all sounds a bit crazy and hectic and at times we wonder if it will ever slow down. For those of us who are passionate about healthcare and technology and can create a good team around us, there is room to enjoy the ride. You must change the relationships you create with your peers and your team as this is the only way to ride out this pace. You have to develop a meaningful relationship with the executive team to ensure that you are tied as closely as possible to the front of the spear of decision making. You need to have a foundation of trust within your team so they trust that the changes you drive are in the business’ and the team’s best interest. I cannot understand how a CIO can be successful in healthcare today if relationship management is not their top skill.

“You must change the relationships you create with your peers and your team as this is the only way to ride out this pace”

So to all healthcare CIO’s, know this, you are in the middle of incredible change that won’t likely stop for the foreseeable future, your competition is drooling to steal your talent, patients are demanding things that directly relate to IT, and technology companies are trying to sell you ideas instead of results. As Dickens put it, “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”, when I look back 10 years from now I am hoping I see a spring of hope. Keep your perspective right, develop the relationships around you and press forward into yet another sea of change.

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